YERINGTON - Chalk one up for the Dayton High School football defense.
More than that, actually, because Dayton's defensive unit was more than airtight while leading the way to a 12-7 Northern 3A conference season opening victory against Rite of Passage. Not only did the Dust Devils keep a potent ROP offense out of the end zone - allowing one touchdown in the first quarter on a fumble recovery - they also forced four turnovers that all proved to be critical while improving their season record to 2-0 on a hot afternoon.
By the way, this is the first 2-0 start in Dayton football history.
"This feels great. It's awesome," said senior linebacker Michael Sampang, whose second quarter fumble recovery led to a touchdown. "The defense did a great job overall. Everyone played their heart out."
A Houston Sisk interception set up Shane VanZant's 1-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown with 8:43 remaining, then Jory Eley preserved the lead with a fumble recovery and interception to stop ROP drives at the end of the game.
"Give credit to the defense. Those guys did a tremendous job," Dayton coach Butch Cattanach said. "We came up with some big hits when we needed them."
One of those hits was delivered by Sampang, who led a pack of defenders to stop the Rams on a fourth-and-goal play at the 2 with 2:14 remaining before halftime. Another came from Garrett Watkins, who made a touchdown-saving tackle to stop ROP's speedy Johnathen Harris after a 35-yard gain to the 23 (the Rams eventually lost the ball on downs). Sisk delivered a hit to force a fumble that Eley recovered at the Dayton 22 in the fourth quarter. And finally, Eley's diving interception at the 5 with 1:04 left slammed the door shut.
"We were in a man defense and I was running, trying to keep up with their guy because he's pretty fast," Sisk said. "I just kind of turned around and the ball was right there. The line put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and the ball was underthrown - that was really a line interception."
Rite of Passage moved the ball well throughout the day behind Harris, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior who rushed for 142 yards on 15 carries.
"Our defense played well, but our offense sputtered," said Rite of Passage coach Tracy Watkins, whose squad was flagged 14 times for 90 yards in penalties in addition to the four turnovers. "We had too many mistakes. We definitely did not play up to our potential today."
Dayton struggled on offense as well, giving up three fumbles. Two of those fumbles were lost by Shane VanZant, although the senior tailback rushed for 91 yards on 23 carries, including touchdown runs of 22 and 1 yards.
VanZant's second touchdown capped a big momentum swing bridging the third and fourth quarters.
The Rams had gained possession at midfield aided by a 15-yard fair catch penalty, but they were unable to dent Dayton's defense. First, Sampang sacked the quarterback for a seven-yard loss. Next, Joel Kiraly and Sampang combining to stuff a run for another two-yard loss. Then on third-and-19 to start the fourth quarter, Sisk picked off a pass over the middle at the Dayton 41.
The seemed to inspire Dayton's offense. VanZant ripped off a 24-yard run, then Jeff Miller took an inside handoff for another nine yards and fullback Josh Feliz powered for 12 yards up the middle to give the Dust Devils first-and-goal at the 6. On third-and-goal from the 4, Jim Kepler took a quarterback sneak for three yards to set the stage for the game-winning play from inside the 1. After a time-out, VanZant took a handoff from Kepler and followed lead blocks from Feliz and Miller to the end zone.
Rite of Passage took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Steven Lee knocked the ball loose on an option play and Jamie Barrower recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
"Since day one, we've told the kids there would be times when things weren't going our way, and this group responded well. They just said, 'We made a mistake and went on with the game," Cattanach said. "We could have caved in right there, especially with all the pressure they put on us ... Our slogan is, 'Expect to win,' and these kids do expect to win."